To Foster Innovation, Cultivate a Culture of Intellectual Bravery

May 16, 2023

Originally published by Harvard Business Review.

When an organization stops innovating, it is only a matter of time before it fails. But what causes a company to cease coming up with new ideas? Over the last 20 years, I’ve studied many failed organizations and one of the things I consistently see is an almost imperceptible erosion of intellectual bravery.

Intellectual bravery is a willingness to disagree, dissent, or challenge the status quo in a setting of social risk in which you could be embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way. When intellectual bravery disappears, organizations develop patterns of willful blindness. Bureaucracy buries boldness. Efficiency crushes creativity. From there, the status quo calcifies and stagnation sets in.

The responsibility for creating a culture of intellectual bravery lies in leadership. As a leader, you set the tone, create the vibe, and define the prevailing norms. Whether or not your company has a culture of intellectual bravery depends on your ability to establish a pattern of rewarded rather than punished vulnerability. Let me share two examples.

Team A — Punished Vulnerability: Last year, I spent a day with a software development team — a group of talented people with high expectations for themselves. This team was behind schedule, over budget, and not making progress as expected. Each member of the team had a track record of solid individual performance, so the prospect of failing on this project created a level of anxiety and frustration they had not experienced before. The leader had given the team guidance about a specific user experience design he preferred, but when team members tried to offer an alternative point of view, he would cut off the conversation and tell them to get back to work. When he finally understood that his UX ideas were not working, he reacted with anger and pointed out the team’s failing in an all-hands meeting. This activated everyone’s self-censoring instinct, and iced the team into crippling silence. It was now risky for anyone to say what they really thought, so the team members retreated into risk management, pain avoidance, and loss prevention — a reasonable reaction. At the very time the leader needed to inspire his team, he created a collective stupor, and his actions were met with compliance, disengagement, and a lack of critical thinking from the team.

Team B — Rewarded Vulnerability: I worked with another software development team at a different company. They were on deadline for a new version release and had been working around the clock. Because of the stakes, the margin of error was low and the pressure was on. But in this case, the team members didn’t seem worried about social risk and spoke up regardless of hierarchy and power with energy and enthusiasm. I watched a new team member push back on a senior leader’s suggestion. Another person asked a naive question. Another shared a mistake she had made and wanted to discuss. In short, the level of psychological safety in the room matched the level of personal exposure required to challenge the status quo. They engaged in small and large acts of vulnerability without fear of ridicule or retaliation. Why? Because they had been given a license to disagree. Most impressive was the team’s ability to maintain creative abrasion and constructive dissent without collapsing into debilitating tension, personal attacks, or silence. The leader rewarded the teams’ acts of vulnerability with permission to engage in more acts of vulnerability. That pattern became the norm.

How did the leader of Team B do it? She created comfort and protection for team members to speak up. Employees naturally engage in threat detection as they interact in the workplace. If they see evidence that other employees have been marginalized, embarrassed, or punished in some way because of their position, gender, ethnicity, age, neurodiversity, or another demographic variable, they use that information to decide whether or not to be vulnerable — even for something as seemingly benign as asking a question. For instance, a new employee may hesitate to ask a question because he perceives that he is not authorized to contribute until he gains more tenure. Or a woman of color may not express an important insight because she witnesses instances of gender and racial bias. By reducing social risk, you can create a culture of intellectual bravery, making it more likely that people will feel comfortable speaking up.

Based on my research with diverse, global teams, I’ve found seven ways to create intellectual bravery on your team:

  • Take your finger off the fear button. There are lots of ways leaders create fear, often without even realizing it. They may rudely cut someone off in conversation, roll their eyes, or simply ignore someone during a meeting. There are more overt ways too, such as publicly shaming someone for asking a question. A milder version would be to simply roll your eyes. Fear causes people to self-censor and retreat into silence. So watch for ways that you might be making team members afraid, even inadvertently, and change your behavior.
  • Assign dissent. If you assign specific members of your team to challenge a course of action or find flaws in a proposed decision, you remove much of the individual’s personal risk and replace it with institutional permission. This allows intellectual bravery to become the norm rather than the exception. Consider rotating the role so that certain team members don’t get permanently labels as devil’s advocates. And don’t always put the same person in that role — mix up who takes it on based on skill, background, and temperament.
  • Encourage people to think beyond their roles. Inviting your people to venture out of their tactical and functional silos creates more opportunity for divergent thinking, allowing them to connect things that aren’t normally connected. Of course, you must manage the process carefully and discern when constructive dissent is giving way to destructive derailment.
  • Respond constructively to disruptive ideas and bad news. When someone on your team offers a disruptive idea or shares bad news, make sure you communicate a positive emotional response through your body language and non-verbal cues. This might include smiling, facing the other person directly (if you’re in the same room), and nodding. This signals that you have a high tolerance for candor and will protect your people in their right to dissent. The most obvious way to do this is to listen with empathy and curiosity and with a goal of understanding, which conveys a sense that you are on a journey together to solve a problem and dissent is part of the process.
  • When you reject feedback, explain why. When you reject a team member’s input or suggestion, explain why you didn’t adopt it. Your considerate response will make it more likely that the individual will continue giving feedback.
  • Weigh in last. Speaking first when you hold positional power softly censors your team. Listen carefully, acknowledge the contributions of others, and then register your point of view taking into account what others have already said.
  • Model vulnerability. Remember that vulnerability is exposing yourself to the possibility of harm or loss. If you model and reinforce a pattern of vulnerability yourself, others are more likely do the same. Share your mistakes. Ask exploratory questions. Admit what you don’t know.

Encouraging psychological safety isn’t easy; it requires a high level of emotional intelligence and a highly controlled ego. Arguably, a leader’s most important job — perhaps above that of creating a vision and setting strategy — is to nourish a context in which people are given air cover in exchange for candor. That’s how you create a culture of intellectual bravery.

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